DECORAH – Way back when, these Decorah Vikings weren’t very good.
“We were pretty mediocre the first half of the season,” Coach Dennis Olejniczak admitted.
Just look at them now, on the verge of the school’s first state baseball championship in 21 years after wiping off Sioux City Heelan, 7-2, Friday afternoon in a snappily played Class 3A semifinal at Principal Park.
There have been a lot of people quick to criticize Cedar Rapids Jefferson for the way it handled the recent dismissal of long-time softball coach Larry Niemeyer. Coincidentally, the 72-year-old Olejniczak has turned his club from chumps to possible champs in about a month and a half.
Decorah (28-10) plays No. 1 Dallas Center-Grimes (35-2) for the title Saturday night at 6. It’s the sixth trip to the finals for the Vikings, their first since 1992.
Their last championship was 1991.
“I don’t know. I guess we just started having a different mindset,” said sophomore pitcher Kyle Kane, who improved to 12-1 by effectively throwing the first five innings.
“We’ve really jelled as team, I think,” added shortstop Jacob Kvale. “We hold each other accountable for what we need to get done. If we don’t get something done that we should have, we let each other know about it … We play as a team. There is no one person on this team above anyone else. It’s a great situation.”
The Vikings scored three times each in the first and second innings to take a surprising 6-0 lead against higher-seeded Heelan (6 against 2). The Crusaders booted and threw the ball around, but Decorah also hit it, with seven of its eight hits coming in that span.
Kvale’s run-scoring single up the middle in the third made it a 7-1 game and was the final Vikings baserunner. Kale Provost came on in relief for Heelan (35-11) and retired the final 10 hitters he saw, but Kane and reliever Landon Ashbacher kept the Crusaders at bay, with help from their defense, which had three double plays.
“Heelan is a good hitting team, we knew that,” Kvale said. “So we knew that we’d have to come out and score runs. That was the mentality we had. We couldn’t sit around and wait for them to strike first. We had to make sure we jumped on top. Our pitchers really did a nice job of shutting them down today. I can’t say enough about their performance: Kyle and Landon.”
Olejniczak can’t say enough about the performance he has seen from his kids. A 16-1 record down the stretch isn’t bad.
“In the second half of the season, with the first game of the second half of our conference season, we’ve played Decorah baseball,” he said. “It’s our style of baseball. We don’t backhand (a grounder) unless we’re absolutely desperate. I want the ball to hit my body … We do things pretty old fashioned. Fortunately, it still works.”
“Coach has pushed to be where we’re at right now, and that’s great,” Kvale said. “He’s a lot of fun, he has a lot of energy. He really keeps us going with his energy, we feed off of it. It makes practice fun. It’s never dull. He always pushes us to be our best, and that’s something that we appreciate.”
Olejniczak – who has 1,294 career wins – already has signed a contract to return for his 50th season at Decorah next year.
“These kids, and I say this from the bottom of my heart, are pretty much like the kids I started coaching in 1963 and ’64,” he said. “Our kids are still pretty cooperative. Now we’ve got a kid or two that has balked and bucked a little bit on the team, too. But they’ve come back into the fold.
“I asked them last year ‘What’s better, commom sense or knowledge?’ They said different things. I told them ‘Well, why can’t we have both?’ Some of them have gotten a lot more common sense in the second half of this year, knowing that there are people that want to help them that they weren’t listening to the first half of the season.”
Here is a video interview with Olejniczak and a copy of the game boxscore: